The Toys That Made us Episode 2: Barbie

After tackling the first episode of Netflix documentary series, The Toys That Made Us, I figured I would look into the next episode. This episode was about Barbie, which I know absolutely nothing about. I have to say I found this episode very entertaining and enjoyed it more so than the Star Wars.

Barbie is the most popular and highest selling doll of all time. Barbie has had over 180 careers to date. This large variety of options helps its ability to appeal to all sorts of consumers. Barbie has also changed with the times and what is happening in the world which keeps it fresh with new generations of collectors.

Barbie, however, had some interesting yet questionable beginnings. Barbie is actually based on a character from overseas. The character was called Bild Lilli from a one-panel Sweedish comic that was published in a paper that would be equivalent to our National Inquirer today. The founder of Barbie and Mattel, Ruth along with her husband Elliott got Barbie going after some blind luck. They had two kids, and Ruth was upset that her daughter, Barbara, didn’t have many play options, it was basically a baby and paper fashion dolls with paper tab outfits. She wanted something fashionable that her daughter could play with. While her son, Ken, had all sorts of play options from guns to horses, and everything in between.

While on a family vacation Ruth found the aforementioned Bild Lilli in a comic panel, however, this character had a seedy life, she was someone who took money to sleep with men. They also had three-dimensional dolls that looked like the character in the comic panels. Ruth bought a number of these dolls to bring back to the United States and Mattel to study and make their own female dolls.

Jack Ryan was given a doll upon their return, Jack was in charge of research and development, but before he started in a toy background he helped create missiles. He had a special contract, something that was absolutely unheard of at the time and ever again, he got royalties and any toys that he created. This would come back to bite Ruth and Elliott in the future.

After time to work on their prototype, it was pitched to the Mattel higher-ups, Mattel didn’t want anything to do with it, especially a toy with boobs. But with some convincing from Ruth they gave the green light to take it to the New York Toy Fair if you make it at the toy fair you instantly make it anywhere. However that was a massive bust, the fair was full of male salespeople, who didn’t know how to properly sell the product, male buyers, and male guests. The male side didn’t fully understand the doll or the need for it. Ruth was crushed and she felt like this was not going to make it after all. They took it to a focus group, and as the story goes, the mothers didn’t like the doll either and voted a no for it. Sometime later at the same focus group, one of the daughters saw the doll and said it looked neat the mother changed her vote, thinking it could help teach her daughter grooming tips in the hopes of getting a husband, which was viewed as an important meal ticket in the 50’s.

Mattel, now knowing the angle to get in with the public made the dolls available to the public, and the first commercial featured a Barbie in a wedding dress showing you what could be. The initial demand was so great stores sold out in no time, and the makers were unable to fulfill demand. In the 60’s Barbie changed, showing the first time that Barbie was going to change with the times. This new variation had more of a youth movement and have a waist that moved. Ken debuted in 1961.

Behind the scenes, tension mounted, Jack Ryan, the man with the sweet contract was living large. He had the second oldest mansion in Beverly Hills, he changed his mansion into a castle with a moat! He was married at five times, and at the end he was married to Zsa Zsa. But he was addicted to the party lifestyle, doing drugs, and he had an addiction to women and even had a “pleasure” dungeon in his house. Growing upset with the man and the publicity his lifestyle was creating, topped off with how Jack was viewed as the originator of Barbie and how much he was getting paid they stopped paying him. Jack had only one move and he took them to court for non-payment. After a 5 year court battle Mattel was forced to pay him for all past wages, but with all that time not generating income he lost his lavish lifestyle and was living in a $400 a month apartment at the end. He did make things after the lawsuit but nothing toy related ever again.

As the 70’s came into play, it was the sports era. They made dolls that played tennis and other sports in the line, this is also when we saw Malibu Barbie, that was a beach barbie with a tan, to this day it is one of the most popular dolls they have ever put out. The face of Barbie got another face lift to fit the new style.

The Barbie line hit a trouble period and the sales fell flat. Mattel was accused of reporting false earnings, also dubbed “cooking the books”. The SEC and stockholders were raising questions and the truth came to light. Ruth had trailers loaded up with hot wheels, had instructed for those to be driven to a near by town, and the trucks would unhitch the trailer in a parking lot and head back to get another. Once a trailer with the hot wheels left the first warehouse she put them on the books as accounts receivable, even though no orders were made for them. In October of 1975 Ruth and Elliott had no choice but to resign from the company they started over 3 decades ago. Ruth was found guilty in court with a fine and community service.

As they say the show must go on, without Ruth to lead the way Barbie had some rough patches led by the men. They made “growing up” Skipper, that with a twirl of the arm Skipper gets taller and grows boobs. That was an absolute bust. in the 1980’s another toy line was going to go after Barbie, that was Jem from Hasbro. When Judy Shackleford one of the Vice President’s of Mattel heard that Hasbro was gunning for them she was upset and had a group trying to figure out what it was. When one of her sales people found out it was a Rock Star she said that is all she needed to know. Typically it takes 18 months for them to organize and release a new line of dolls, they were going to get this out in 4 months to beat the competition. Barbie was able to get Barbie and the Rock Stars out to the public before Jem made it so people thought that Jem was copying Barbie and not the other way around.

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Bratz dolls were very different compared to Barbie which was a hit for consumers for many years until their fall in 2016. Photo Credit: Bratz, MGA and directly from Amazon.

Not many changes of note happened until 1992 when totally hair Barbie came out, which is the best selling doll of all time. In the 2000’s another brand went after Barbie, and this line came out swinging. Bratz took 40% of the fashion doll business from Barbie. Bratz dolls appeared to be dolls for older girls, while Barbies were viewed as toys for the younger girls. Bratz also welcomed dolls of all sorts of ethnicity, while Barbie was always perceived as a blonde white doll. Barbie tried to take it to Bratz by unveiling a line called “Flavas” and it was a poser horrible attempt. The second attempt was the first ever Dr. Barbie. But that didn’t do the trick either.

Barbie was losing the fight on shelves, and in the media, so they decided they would take the fight to MGA and Bratz in court. Mattel sued saying that their employee, Designer Carter Bryant was under contract with Mattel, when he licensed the idea of Bratz to MSG, and Mattel felt they owned the brand because of that. The battle in court went on for 8 years, with the rights bouncing back and forth in court, until 2013 when MGA earned full rights to the Bratz line. However with the lengthy court battle, and not reinventing themselves enough, the Bratz line folded in 2016.

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Barbie’s Fashionistas line was a long time coming, but failed to hit the mark with consumers. Photo Credit: Barbie and Mattel

Also in 2016, Barbie came out with a Fashionista line that featured all sorts of Barbies of shapes, sizes and colors. However Barbie is experiencing another slump. Is this the final beginning of  the end for Barbie? Only time will tell.

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Author: Jon Hicks

I am a wise cracking avid gamer, drawn more to the role playing games with the vast stories and characters. I collect Funko pops, my name is Riddler3 on the Funatics board. I’m a big DC fan, none bigger than Green Lantern as evidenced by my leg tattoo. My biggest fandom is zombies, namely all things Walking Dead. I love everything about zombies and can talk about it for hours. I enjoy Game of Thrones, sports, basketball, and football at the forefront. I support my hobbies as an office manager at a sign company. Please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk about all sorts of topics.

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